“I have a strong belief that customers are not a counterpart in the relationship, but a strategic asset for every company. So any kind of interaction we have with our customers produces value for us” is how Bruno Busacca, Dean of SDA Bocconi, the leading Italian business school, focuses the development of management education across the school.
Based in Milan, that centre of fashion and industrial production, SDA Bocconi School of Management is the post-graduate school of the highly respected Università Bocconi. The university specialises in economics, management and law, and as such is closely connected to the business world of northern Italy, one of the powerhouses of European industry and richest areas of the continent.
Perhaps appropriately for this city of high-end design classics, just south of the Swiss border, Busacca, references Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich of Wharton, in describing the MBA program as like a Swiss Army Knife, “you get lots of tools, but you don’t know precisely what you will use them for when you get it.” This analogy fits neatly with Pasteur’s oft-quoted line that “fortune favours the prepared mind,” having those management tools to hand when you need them is what sets the educated manager apart from his counterparts, and perhaps also with the idea of the ‘always prepared’ boy scout with his knife. It also highlights the critical issue facing education providers today, the challenge of technology – and how the traditional imparting of ‘codifiable’ knowledge is nowadays something that can be done as well, or better, online; but the understanding of how to use that knowledge and skilfully apply it is something that has to be acquired through practice and discussion, something that is much harder to achieve online.
This leads Busacca to observe that blended learning has to offer the best path for giving greater value for participants in management learning today. “Technology can offer a lot of opportunities to business schools to enhance the learning experience, before, during and after the courses” and, he also notes, allows for real economies of scale, as has been seen in the rise of MOOCs. But importantly these economies of scale apply to the creation of quality content. Leading research schools, such as SDA Bocconi, therefore still hold a very strong card with their ability to generate new ideas and thinking, and bring that to a larger audience.
Technology and its opportunities are just one element of an increasingly complex competitive environment for executive education at business schools. In addition to technology’s threats and opportunities, Busacca sees that there are increasing numbers of entrants to the sector, “for instance Chinese business schools and schools from India and Brazil….every year the FT Ranking has new entrants in it…and then there are other types of competitors, consultants and editorial groups. There are also many former executives who have lost their jobs during the economic crisis that are now able to offer their advice and experience to companies especially SMEs, which is an additional factor to contend with. So competition is strongly increasing.”
While the world is to a large extent focusing on how to implement the new distribution opportunities afforded by technology, SDA Bocconi is also investing heavily in the more traditional infrastructure with a brand new business school campus being developed in the heart of Milan. The new building, designed by avant-garde Japanese architect practice Sanaa Studio, who created the impressive Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, should open on the site of the old Milan milk factory in 2020. The drive behind this is however closely connected to the increasing use of technology. Busacca explains that one of the great benefits of technology is that it actually frees up time for faculty and importantly, classroom space, from delivering basic knowledge and allows more time to be dedicated to discussion sessions, experimenting and experiential learning. This will increase the business school’s capacity by 40% and allow for much greater face-to-face interactions for participants.
Currently the school offers over 200 open enrolment programs each year, the majority of which are delivered in Italian, but some 15% of the programs are directed at senior international participants, and many delivered in partnership with other prestigious schools, such as the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown McDonough School of Business and Spain’s ESADE. Busacca is proud of these collaborative programs as “they leverage different competences from the partner schools, giving a global proposition for the participants.”He sees this as a vital element of leadership programs, as “leaders of tomorrow need a global perspective.”
He is not complacent about the effort that goes into establishing and administering these partnerships. The business school sector is, despite its collegiate context, just as wary at partnering with competitors as other business sectors, and Busacca notes that “these kind of collaborative initiatives need to take time to work; people need to be convinced [within the respective schools] of the benefits of the collaboration,” so they do not just formulate at the click of a Dean’s fingers – but require a building of trust and understanding between the institutions that develops incrementally over time, before the public results such as joint open programs can be created. “The ideal path of development of a partnership, as in the recent case of cooperation with ESSEC, starts with a meeting of the Deans and other relevant people, followed by a sharing of a vision between the two Schools and then communicating a strong commitment for a lasting collaboration from the top down. This enabled ideas and work to emerge from links from the bottom up, and a realization that collaboration means increasing the size of the pie, not just sharing it.”
Collaboration between schools has always been easier to achieve in custom programs, not least because the driver to achieve it is usually the client – but SDA Bocconi has been building a series of collaborative custom program initiatives with other schools too, notably with the Barcelona based IESE.
Busacca sees that as executive education evolves there are increasing demands from clients for greater customization, but also that the appetite for executive education – and the reasons to invest in it – are steadily increasing too. SDA Bocconi in partnership with the Italian Marketing Society conduct a biennial study of how ‘talent’ selects their employers (as opposed to the more usual research the other way around), and that has consistently shown that the level of professional development opportunities offered by companies is always amongst the top reasons for talented people to take up new jobs. Allied to this, other research shows that the companies with the best performance results are consistently those that invest most heavily in executive development. “There are very strong links between corporate performance and leadership skills and competence building. Particularly the development of dynamic capabilities in the company; the ability to manage at the same time competence building processes and competence leveraging processes – which means they can manage the present but also build the future; and also to increase sense-making capabilities within the organization. All this as well as the wonderful opportunity to increase the employer branding for attracting talent, makes it a highly valuable investment.”
Situated close to the fashionable centre of Milan, SDA Bocconi is surrounded by some of the world’s leading fashion companies, with brands that are instantly recognized the world over, headquartered there, including Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Moschino, Prada, Versace and Ermenegildo Zegna to name a few. Not surprisingly SDA Bocconi has strong research and consequently a teaching focus on luxury brand management which is much sought after. However, Busacca is equally keen to highlight the work the school does with Italy’s ‘hidden champions’, those business-to-business manufacturing companies that are world leaders in their chosen niches.
These companies, as unknown as the fashion houses are famous, are the real economic drivers of the region; often family owned, frequently relatively small, but innovative and efficient. “These companies see the importance of education, for sure, but there is always the problem that in a small company it is much more difficult for managers to find time to attend programs, even short ones….but I think it is our duty to educate these SMEs and help them to undertake a path of sustainable growth. And this is an issue I am frequently challenged on by colleagues from other business schools: How do you manage the duality of being a global business school serving large companies internationally, and also help the small and medium enterprises in your local region? But I think it is our duty to educate these SMEs, which are so important to the Italian economy” Busacca affirms. In response to this in 2012 the school launched the ‘SDA Bocconi for Growth’ program which is aimed at this SME sector. “Each year we have a particular focus, last year we offered it to companies that had been particularly effected by the earthquake in Emilia Romagna in 2012; this year the focus is on young employees in micro-businesses and start-ups. The programs are delivered online – all you need is an internet connection. It is another way in which technology can do a lot.”
SDA Bocconi has also created a knowledge and research centre for SMEs to gather data and analyse the economic impact that SMEs are making. Recently the focus has been on two key areas: internationalisation and how to increase company size through collaboration. “We have seen that those SMEs that have an international perspective have a very much higher rate of growth than their more domestically focused competitors – so improving the ability to enter and sustain themselves in other markets is hugely important” says Busacca.
But for all Busacca’s passion for supporting the local economy and bringing academic rigour in a philanthropic way to the local area, as Dean he is also charged with making the business commercially successful. As a professor of corporate economics and management, he is of course well placed to guide the business of the school forward. Busacca’s research interest is particularly around consumer behaviour and marketing – programs he still teaches on.
As the opening quote of this article highlights, Busacca sees the school’s clients, from MBA students to international corporations, as internal partners that produce value for them in many collaborative ways. “This is perhaps easiest to see in customized programs, where we have to understand the complexity and particularity of their challenges, and analyse their needs, but also in open programs I think that customers are an invisible asset. I try to spread this belief inside the school, because if you convince people that this is true, immediately the identification with the customers increases, because they are not something you consider external to your organization, but an asset you can grow, and increased level of service and interaction with customers follows naturally as a result of this mindset.”
This is also reflected, Busacca notes, in the entrepreneurial orientation of the faculty as a whole. “Yes, they are very committed to teaching and research but they are entrepreneurial, in the sense that they are happy to think on the impact of their research. So the corporate connections are very important for them. So getting faculty to treat customers as assets was relatively simple…. Much more so than getting them to adopt customer related indicators, such as the net promoter scores for their programs!”
Busacca has built the development of the school under his leadership, with the help of a new – and appropriate acronym – Aida. This is appropriate for its connection to Verdi, the opera’s composer who was born not far from Milan, a worldwide symbol of Italian creativity and culture. For SDA Bocconi Aida stands for: Ambidexterity – the challenge to be both rigorous and relevant; Imagination – the ability to empower capability with knowledge, and take different perspectives on situations; Diversity – of cultures, clients and programs; and Accountability – to measure their impact and success. With his focus on a five year plan to 2020, and managing the duality of the international perspective and local business support, with the opening of the new campus building and the continued growth of research and alliances, there is plenty reason to expect a continued ‘triumphal march’ into the future at SDA Bocconi.
This article was originally published in Developing Leaders Issue 21